By Akshara Goel
‘Partition has caused the politics of the belly’ – Francois Bayart.
On 15th August 1947 India attained independence from the two hundred years of British rule, but, witnessed its secondly, partition into present-day Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh. The date, 15th August, is chiefly remembered as the victory from colonial domination? achieved through non-violence. Concurrently, its bemoaned for partition the narratives which are limited to national leaders, political causes and high politics dominated by the upper-class male perspective leaders. However, Indian feminist scholarships have argued that this recollection has disregarded the gendered understanding of wide spread communal violence – the story of displacement and dispossession and, the process of realignment of family, community and national identities. Women survivors of partitioned India occupied a distinctly marginalised space in the partition violence. They were not only subjected to barbarity from men of the ‘other’ community but also from their family members and community which began in the pre-partition period (before 1947), and carried on until the 1950s. The ‘other’ here refers to ‘enemy community’ who were not part of the dominant ethnic community of India or then West Pakistan or Pakistan.
Women partition survivors were made attached to their male family member or community as they were assumed incapable of making their decisions on migrating to the other side of the border. Consequently, theywere compelled to agree with the twin concept of ‘Azadi’ – translated as Freedom – that was the loss of community, networks, identity and more or less stable inter and intra-personal relationships . Simultaneously, they witnessed double jeopardy. Firstly, by many human right discourses that were packed up recognize them as victims during the conflict occurred at the time of partition. Secondly, since males couldn’t perform their “role of protector” or unable to participate in “income generation activities” it drove to the domestic violence or resurgence of religious practices. This resulted in re-composition of the patriarchal structure which got disintegrated under the partition conflict, wherein, it led to greater control of women rather than, letting providing them with a mechanism to create their agency otherwise their agency was limited to the act of producing or reproducing the nation, according to the Indian government.
The predominant memory of partition for these destitute women consisted of confusion, dislocation and severing roots. The day-to-day violence caused by the partition formed the everyday experience for these women. They were exposed to distinct forms of sexual violence that carried the symbolic meaning designated to their status in the male dominated -patriarchal society where gender relations are arranged along the beliefs and traditions of the religious and ethnic communities. The most predictable form of violence was sexual assault inflicted the men of one community upon the women of the ‘other’ community to assert their own identity and ‘subduing the other by dishonouring their women’. However, the most notorious action was the sadistic pleasure these perpetrators sought from the humiliation of women.
According to anecdotes by the women partition survivor, they were raped in front of their male family members and some of them were paraded naked in the market or danced in gurudwaras (holy shrine of Sikhs). For the stigmatization purpose and its legacy onto the future generation, the perpetrators sexually appropriated these women by desexualizing her as wife or mother through mutilating or disfiguring her breasts and genitalia (tattooing-branding on their breasts and genitalia with triumphant slogans like a crescent moon or trident) so that they no longer remain a nurturer. The motivation was to make her an inauspicious figure by degrading into an unproductive woman. These barbarian acts reflected the thinking of the patriarchal community wherein women are just considered objects of honour constructed by the male. Women survivors of Partition encountered or witnessed the episodes of violence from their family members and community as well. The latter, coerced their women to death, in some cases women were forced to kill themselves, to avoid being sexually offended and to preserve their chastity along with the shielding the honour of individual, family and community. According to the anecdote by Taran, a partition survivor who successfully came to India in 1947– “We girls would often talk about death – some were afraid, others thought of it as a glorious death – dying for an end, for freedom, for an honour. For me everything was related to freedom (from British colonial rule), I was dying for freedom”. Fortunately, she didn’t have to go through the ‘choice’ of death while her women friends were planning how to prepare for their death- an interview was taken by the Ritu Menon and Kamala Bhasin – Indian feminist writer and activist, respectively. However, women were made to ‘volunteer’ for death coerced to poison, put to the sword or drowned or set ablaze individually or collectively that is with other younger women or women and children (Butalia 1998 cited in Chakraborty, 2014, pg. 41-43) .
Some of the partition survivors were women who got abducted by ‘others’ and went through the identity crisis concerning the dominant ethnic community. They were abducted as Hindu (dominant community of India) married as Muslim (dominant community of Pakistan) and again recovered as Hindus and eventually had to go through a lot of bitter and painful “choices”. Women who were brought back ‘home’ after getting abducted, following the 1947 partition period with Pakistan, weren’t given choice to decide their home. It was assumed that Hindu women will retreat to India while Muslim women will be transmitted to Pakistan (during 1947 partition). Their space of home could have changed wasn’t given consideration. It wasn’t the boundary of domestic that defined home but it was the boundary of a nation, yet, they met the fate of non-acceptance from their natal families. In theory, everyone had a choice to move or stay but in practice staying on was virtually impossible. The ‘choice’ of whether to move, stay or return was a decision being made for women, by the patriarchal nation-state and their families. Women’s agency wasn’t a principal concern in any of the conflicts and its aftermath .
The partition of violence affected the everyday world and the lives of women. This concept of the “everyday world” was promulgated by Dorothy Smith (1987). She maintains that “everyday world” refers to lived reality in the private sphere in which women’s representation and gendered lives on the domestic space gets effected and affected by the major events in the political sphere – “the domain of men”. The primary meaning of “everyday world” is to connect the political space with domestic (private) lives of women in a given historical instance. In other words, women survivors of partition have illustrated that there is a definite continuity between the “everyday world” and “extraordinary historical times” of the partition era. This everyday world consists of the private/domestic space in which a woman identifies herself’ and a ‘safe space’ as assumed by the patriarchal structure. However, in the partition violence, their ‘safe space’ gets threatened and compromised as they get dragged into the turmoil of public/political space where their male counterparts take an authoritative position but with no or negligible space for women. The patriarchal mechanisms decided everyday belonging of these women survivors. The fate of these women become tied to that of the nation-state or family and community which dictated how the women should live their life in post-partitioned independent India.
The partition violence and Indian nation-state – their efforts and narratives towards the women survivors- have played a crucial role in deconstruction and reconstruction of the women’s identity, space and role. It can be observed that the national belonging for all the partition women survivors was meditated through the institution of the heterosexual and patrilineal nuclear family and community concurrently they were disenfranchised as sexual commodities, patriarchal properties and communal commodities by the nation-state and their respective community and family. After partition, the Indian patriarchal state has explicitly infantilized women survivors by denying them to represent themselves and this process eventually has caused their disenfranchisement.
Akshara is a prospective PhD candidate and has completed her Master of Arts in Diplomacy, Law and Business (2020) from Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, Delhi-NCR, India. Presently, she is a Commissioning Editor in E-International Relations and Associate Editor of Law & Order.